(Bob Staake for The Washington Post)

Work is all too often like high school. There are cliques. Everyone's usually a lot more interested in the gossip than the work. And there's typically somebody who likes to throw their weight around, intimidating others and taking credit for work that isn't theirs.

But unlike the stereotypical social misfit who ends up the school bully, workplace bullies are often charming and socially skilled. A new study from researchers at the University at Buffalo examined why bullies often achieve so much success at work. In it, the researchers studied employees at a mental health facility, asking them to complete questionnaires about which of their colleagues acted like bullies and a self-analysis (rated also by subordinates) on their own political skill. The study, which claims to be the first to measure the relationship between job performance and bullying, also looked at job evaluations.

Their results found that neither bullying nor political skill, on their own, were correlated with job performance, and that the two traits were not correlated with one another. But when bullying and political skill were combined, there was a strong correlation with higher performance, backing up their hypothesis that "politically skilled bullies are able to use their bullying behavior to build broad coalitions of supporters and pools of resources that will facilitate their own job performance."

Of course, anyone who's ever spent any time in cubicle land won't find this very surprising. Workplace bullying (defined in the paper as "repetitive offensive or aggressive behavior" that has a "negative impact on the victim" and "harmful effects on organizational outcomes") is apparently so common that as many as half of all U.S. employees have experienced it. There's even an institute whose mission is designed to prevent it.

Still, at one time or another, we've all wished the line between what some people call bullying and what others call strong leadership wasn't so fuzzy. All too often, people widely seen as domineering and intimidating by their colleagues are viewed as simply being assertive by their bosses.

Maybe the typical work environment—one too often built on rigid hierarchies and coercion—promotes it. Today's cutthroat job market and demanding performance expectations surely makes it worse. But just like bullying in the classroom, such behavior in the office can ravage an otherwise well functioning workplace.


Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.

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